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Let special prosecutor handle Van Dyke case

Former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. | AP

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Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was right to call Thursday for a special prosecutor in the murder case against Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, but she was late in doing so.

It recalls her unconscionable delay of nearly 400 days that ended last year when she finally brought charges against Van Dyke for killing Laquan McDonald. By taking so long, she invited widespread suspicion that she might never have filed charges if incriminating police dash-cam video of the incident had not been made public.

No sooner had she filed charges last November than some voices started calling for her to step away from the case in favor of an independent special prosecutor. In February, an alliance of community groups and others filed a petition in court seeking to take Alvarez off the case because she was too tightly connected to Chicago police.

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Until Thursday, Alvarez claimed she had no conflict and was capable of quarterbacking the prosecution of Van Dyke in an unimpeachable manner. But the ground changed under her feet on March 15, when she lost the Democratic primary election to Kim Foxx after a campaign in which McDonald’s slaying was arguably the central issue. Alvarez’s claim that she should be trusted to oversee the Van Dyke prosecution was resoundingly rejected by the voters.

Calling in a special prosecutor is not the ideal solution for every case in which police officers are charged. Special prosecutors have a mixed track record, just as regular prosecutors do. Prosecutors shouldn’t be quick to shove every controversial case off on a special prosecutor. But it’s critical in a high profile proceeding such as the Van Dyke case that when it reaches its conclusion the public has confidence the case was prosecuted as professionally and independently as possible.

Before a special prosecutor can be brought on board, Judge Vincent Gaughan must check to see if the Illinois attorney general’s office or the Illinois Office of the State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor has prosecutors available to handle the case. On Thursday, Gaughan didn’t commit to going even that far, saying he wanted more time to think about it. He set a hearing on the issue for June 2.

Van Dyke, who has pleaded not guilty, is entitled to a speedy trial, and the larger community is entitled to have this case move forward. Gaughan should authorize a new prosecutor in the case — someone who is sensitive to all the parties and issues. There has been enough delay. Get this case back on track.

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